Rev. Dennis Dease: Our soul is still in the right place

  • Article by: THE REV. DENNIS DEASE
  • Updated: December 10, 2007 - 6:18 PM

Catholicism is vibrant at the University of St. Thomas. We are decidedly not in a secular slide.

In her Dec. 5 column, "Battle for soul of St. Thomas takes a turn for the worse," Katherine Kersten alleges that during Archbishop Harry Flynn's 12 years as chairman of the University of St. Thomas Board of Trustees, "little has been done to resist the slide to secularization."

That statement is far from true.

When I began as president of St. Thomas in 1991, I emphasized the importance of maintaining wholehearted commitment to "the cultivation of a vital Catholic identity" and "the development of the whole student. Not only the mind, but the heart -- and the soul -- as well."

Sixteen years later, I can proudly report that we have made remarkable progress in establishing an even more vibrant Catholic community here. Archbishop Flynn and our board of trustees have been key to those efforts -- a wide variety of academic, cocurricular and community outreach programs. Examples include:

Center for Catholic Studies. Founded in 1996, this is one of the largest programs of its kind in the nation, with 275 undergraduate majors and 90 graduate students. The center's John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought and Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy sponsor conferences and conduct research. The center publishes the quarterly Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture.

School of Law. We opened the school in 2001 with a mission of "integrating faith and reason in the search for truth through a focus on morality and social justice." That mission has attracted 470 students who readily respond to our challenge to become servant leaders in their profession.

Seminaries. St. Thomas collaborates with the archdiocese in sponsoring two seminaries. The St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity prepares candidates for the priesthood and offers degree programs in lay ministry. St. John Vianney Seminary is the largest college-level seminary in the United States; in five years, its undergraduate enrollment has doubled to 154.

Rome presence. We opened a campus in Rome in 2000, and more than 350 students have enrolled in our Catholic Studies semesters and January Term programs. On Christmas Eve, our Liturgical Choir will sing again in St. Peter's Basilica.

Murray Institute. The institute, another donor-funded partnership with the archdiocese, has enabled more than 600 teachers and principals in elementary and secondary schools to receive graduate degrees at St. Thomas free of tuition since 1993.

Spirituality and service. Our tradition of faith has found expression both in our eight chapels and in our efforts to promote a spirit of public virtue. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching last year named St. Thomas one of 62 "community engagement" institutions, citing the 80,000 hours of service that our students and employees contribute to this community each year.

Catholic identity programs. We received two Lilly Foundation grants totaling $2.5 million -- and matched by donors -- to establish our "Beyond Career to Calling" program, which encourages faculty, staff and students to explore vocations. Additionally, all new employees participate in an orientation to our Catholic mission, and hundreds of faculty and staff attend more intensive seminars on integrating Catholic principles into our life and work.

Higher education leadership. We sponsored a 1995 conference that drew 450 educators from 130 Catholic colleges and universities and the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education to discuss the unique challenges facing our institutions. I subsequently served as chairman of the American Catholic Colleges and Universities board and now serve as the American representative to the International Federation of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

The logical conclusion is that the University of St. Thomas not only has resisted "the slide to secularization" but more importantly has strengthened its Catholic character. To suggest otherwise not only is inaccurate, it is unfair and is a slap in the face to the students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees who have worked so hard to make these achievements possible.

The Rev. Dennis Dease is president of the University of St. Thomas.

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